West Coast football's reputation is all about offense. Thus, there's the West Coast Offense. But the well-kept secret about Southern Cal football is the Trojans are ranked No. 2 in the nation in total defense.
West Coast football's reputation is all about offense. Thus, there's the West Coast Offense.
But the well-kept secret about Southern Cal football is the Trojans are ranked No. 2 in the nation in total defense.
"Most people don't know about our defense,'' said USC defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who played the part with a shaved head and a raspy, drill-sergeant kind of voice. "After people play us, they sure know about our defense. Just ask Michigan.''
In a 32-18 victory over the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl last season, USC held the Wolverines to 12 yards rushing. Before Michigan reached the USC red zone, the Wolverines trailed 19-3.
"Maybe people have that stigma on the West Coast that it's more offense than defense,'' Holt said. "When you play us, you realize there's good defense out here.''
Illinois (9-3) takes its spread offense and sophomore quarterback Juice Williams against USC (10-2) in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day (4 p.m., ABC). The Illini hope to duplicate the performance by Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon, who scrambled and directed a spread offense in a 24-17 win over USC in October.
Normally, USC puts the hurt on teams with its defense. USC ranks in the top seven nationally in all five defensive categories. Senior defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis earned the Pac-10 Conference's defensive player of the year award and first-team All-America.
"You have to watch him and understand what he does,'' Holt said. "Sedrick plays a position that doesn't get a lot of production. He's surrounded by offensive linemen. We're really good because of him. It allows us to move guys around, get one-on-one matchups. Ask the opposing coaches who our best guy is? They all say Sedrick Ellis.''
Ellis has 56 tackles with 12.5 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks. Linebackers Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga, a pair of two-time first-team all-conference selections, combined for 158 tackles and 12 tackles for a loss. Defensive end Lawrence Jackson, who has 50 tackles for a loss and 29.5 sacks in his career, and safety Kevin Ellison were also first-team all-conference picks.
USC ranks second in total defense (258.8 yards per game), fourth in scoring defense (15.9), fourth in rushing defense (79.2), sixth in pass efficiency defense (99.7) and seventh in pass defense (179.7). USC's front seven has size and speed not normally found on the West Coast, Holt said.
"You get that kind of front in the SEC,'' he said. "We're fast and physical. Our kids are physical enough to match up with anyone in the country.''
The off game came against Dixon, the elusive Oregon dual-threat quarterback who had 76 yards rushing with one touchdown and 157 yards passing. His scrambling especially hurt the Trojans.
"I don't think we've had trouble as much with spread offenses as much as trouble with running quarterbacks,'' Ellis said. "Dennis Dixon is a great example of that. We did well in every other aspect except for corralling him on the run.
"Dennis is a little faster than Juice. Juice is a great runner. Dennis goes down easier than Juice. Juice is a thick guy. You have to wrap him up and get him down.''
Williams already noticed the speed and aggressive play from USC linebackers on film. It reminded him of the clip of Maualuga smearing UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan near the sideline last year.
"They're very, very fast, and they like to hit people,'' Williams said. "A big-time hit in my mind is the one the middle linebacker put on the UCLA quarterback last year. That's a situation I'll definitely try to avoid.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.